Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Spring Cleaning Needed for a Cluttered 'Cabin'

Poor horror movie fans.

We, the purveyors of ghosties and other bad things that go bump in the night and scare the bejesus out of us, are starving. Fed a barely palatable diet of uninspired remakes of Japanese horror imports and 80s slasher flicks served up with paltry sides of three-dimensional gimmicks and computer-generated imagery for the past several years, and we’re malnourished. It’s no surprise then that we’re so hungry for quality, so ravenous for something to satiate our horror taste buds that we’d pounce like a slobbering alien on the crew of the Nostromo on the first promising morsel of original horror cinema that crosses the threshold of our local multiplex.
Thus seems to be the curious case of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, a hodgepodge of cinematic clich├ęs masquerading as some would-be satirical masterpiece that seems to be polarizing the horror faithful. Like a feeding tube placed in an emaciated patient, CABIN attempts to infuse much-needed nutrients into the horror genre – but ultimately just runs out the wrong end in a steaming pile of liquid crap.

Fanboy wunderkind Joss Whedon (he of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and DOLLHOUSE fame) co-wrote this giant mess of slasher film-meets-Lovecraftian hocus pocus, but wisely leaves directing duties to first-timer  Drew Goddard (writer of the gimmicky CLOVERFIELD). Give Goddard some credit, though: How he gets a respectable cast (which includes Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) to keep a straight face throughout the proceedings is merit-worthy in and of itself.
While many reviewers will take the position that much of the “enjoyment” of CABIN is walking in cold and not knowing too much about the plot, my theory is that this approach is merely clever marketing on the part of the film’s distributor because if people actually knew what they were paying for, the opening week box office would be far less. That aside, I’ll refrain from spoilers and simply summarize the plot in a few succinct bullet points:

·         A virgin, a jock, a slut, a brainiac, and a stoner go to the titular location, play with some antiques in the basement, and seemingly unleash an ancient Latin spell – here taking the form of a redneck zombie family;

·         Interspersed with what at first appears to be a by-the-numbers, WRONG TURN-like slasher are scenes with official-looking people running around some military-like installation flicking lots of buttons that control lighting and release pheromones while listening to REO Speedwagon songs;

·         Nothing is what it seems, while everything is what it seems. The two plots converge, recognizable horror/sci-fi star makes inexplicable and pointless stunt cameo, lots of rumbling ensues, CGI-generated rocks fall;

·         The end.
Despite an – admittedly – intriguing set-up at the film’s outset, the whole affair deteriorates into utter silliness by film’s end. Like a bad episode of HOARDERS, Whedon and company shove everything into the film’s third act, stuffing it so full that there’s not one distinguishable flavor to be tasted. Listen, I can suspend my disbelief with the best of them, but CABIN seems to play to the attention-deficit disorder generation, literally throwing everything and the proverbial kitchen sink at the movie screen and hoping something will stick.

Honestly, I’ve seen episodes of SCOOBY DOO that are scarier, and therein lies my problem with CABIN. As a horror film, it’s simply not scary. There is nothing at stake here. Every time the action shifts from the cabin to the control room, the audience is pulled away from any growing attachment it may have developed for the victims. Without fear and tension, there is no horror. Call me crazy, but I’m still looking for a horror film that scares the shit out of me – much like THE EXORCIST or HALLOWEEN or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or SCREAM or THE DESCENT did. I’m old-school like that.
So, if CABIN isn’t a horror film, what is it exactly? As a satire, it’s so mired in its own meta-meets-hipster irony that it plods joylessly, almost maliciously flipping a middle finger at its audience. CABIN doesn’t so much deconstruct the horror genre as it does bully it, thus – for me – the satire gets lost in its spiteful tone. The reason why a film like SCREAM worked as both a satire and a horror film is because it never lost sight of the fact that it was a horror film at its core, that it used its self-referential humor to draw attention to the horror that was unfolding rather than to draw attention to the high-brow concept of its slasher self-awareness itself. Whedon and Goddard are so fully immersed in their concept, they lose sight of this and forget to actually scare or even playfully wink at their audience along the way, opting instead to clobber us over the head with their self-satisfaction and cleverness.

In the end, ambition may be what killed CABIN for this viewer. The horror genre is wide and varying in terms of its sub-genres. Films like SCREAM and BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON (hell, even 1981’s STUDENT BODIES) work better as satire because they don’t bite off more than they can chew – the focus in these films is on the slasher sub-genre. SHAUN OF THE DEAD sticks to the zombie sub-genre. Even the decidedly more slapstick films in the SCARY MOVIE franchise had the good sense to limit what each parodied. Here, Whedon and Goddard cast their net far too wide and ultimately fail to rein in the promising first two-thirds of the film. Honestly, I kept waiting for the aforementioned stunt cameo to yell out, “Release the Kraken!” at one point toward the end.
My assessment of CABIN can be boiled down using a simple mathematical equation:

Not scary + not funny = epic fail.

1 comment:

Carl Hose said...

Well, I could not be happier to read this post by Vince. I was starting to worry there might be something wrong with me because I didn't understand this "masterpiece" everyone is talking about. Vince sums it up for me all the way through and makes me feel better knowing I am not alone, that at least someone else out there hasn't fallen victim to the Cabin in the Woods Fever. Nice job, Vince.